Astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) sits at the helm of his space craft, looks out at the vastness of space and ponders life, space travel, and humanity. “I wonder, do people still war against their brother? Do they let their neighbor’s children starve?” The enormity “…squashes a man’s ego… “I feel lonely.” He takes one more look around, then at his crew members already sleeping, climbs into his sleep pod and closes his eyes.
After a wild re-entry into the atmosphere, the craft crash lands into a body of water causing the crew to wake up. Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Taylor wake; however, their female crew member Stewart has died to an air leak in her pod. As water fills up their craft, the crew gathers supplies and a life raft and escapes before the craft sinks. They row for a while until they get to a place to get onshore. It is the year 3978, 2000 years since they left Earth. The terrain is rocky and arid and the dirt has toxins preventing anything from growing so the crew decide to venture on to see if they can find life. Landon “plants” the American flag at the spot before they leave and they set off.
The three continue coming across vegetation as they go until they see what look like scarecrows. When they go to check it out, they see a water fall with pools of water which they take as an opportunity to strip off their clothes for a dip. As the three enjoy the water, unidentified people steal their clothes and supplies. The three run after them, find a pile of their clothes and a group of humans eating corn and melons. Soon they hear a rumbling and the people scatter. Apes riding horses, apes with sticks, and apes with guns chase and capture the humans and Taylor, Landon, and Dodge try to escape as well. Dodge is shot while Taylor and Landon are captured separately.
Taylor wakes up in a “vet” hospital with ape doctors talking and working on him. He’s confused and cannot talk due to a throat injury sustained during the capture. He tries to communicate and piques the interest of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) animal psychologist who wants to study him. She gives him a mate Nova (Linda Harrison) to keep him company. Taylor keeps trying to communicate and eventually is able to steal her notebook and pencil and writes, “My name is Taylor”. Zira is amazed and brings him to her house so they can communicate, via written notes, with her archaeologist fiance, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), about where Taylor came from and where he learned to talk.
The conversation is interrupted when Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) shows up and dismisses Taylor’s knowledge as learned tricks. As the security apes are taking Taylor back to the vet cage, Taylor escapes and takes them on a wild chase through town. It is when he is finally captured when his voice returns and he exclaims, “Get your stinkin’ hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” This throws everyone into a frenzy as they have never heard man speak.
Taylor gets a “trial” but isn’t allowed to speak much. The elders call his story heresy against their sacred scrolls of faith and history. In Dr. Zaius’ chamber, he tells Taylor he always knew about man. “His emotions must rule his brain.” Dr. Zaius plans to “quiet” Taylor, but during the night, Zira’s nephew, Lucius (Lou Wagner) comes to break him out. Lucius, Taylor, and Nova meet up with Zira and Cornelius and head to the Forbidden Zone where Cornelius has found artifacts which he thinks pre-date the ancient ape scrolls meaning man was there before them. *The Forbidden Zone is the area past a certain boundary set forth by ape elders to keep their ape people from exploring and possibly stumbling upon something or someone they aren’t supposed to know about.*
Once they get there, Dr. Zaius and his army catch up to them. After an intense moment, Dr. Zaius agrees to go into the cave and see the artifacts which include glasses, false teeth, and a human baby doll that cries, “mama”. Dr. Zaius refuses to acknowledge the significance of the artifacts and upon leaving the cave, the army fires upon the group. Taylor takes Dr. Zaius hostage and negotiates for a horse, supplies, and permission to leave on his own with Nova.
Dr. Zaius agrees and has Cornelius cite from the ancient scroll saying, “Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil’s pawn…” Taylor says goodbye to Cornelius and Lucius with a handshake, then kisses Zira–much to Cornelius’ horror, loads up Nova on the horse and rides off. Zira asks Dr. Zaius, “What will he find out there, doctor?” Dr. Zaius, “His destiny.”
As Taylor and Nova round the beach, they come up a sculpture. As Taylor recognizes it, he realizes where he is and what has probably happened. As he screams, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” the camera pans to the head of the Statue of Liberty….
What I Liked
Taylor’s ego in the beginning being over the top confident and unyielding of empathy makes for a great character arc. Telling Landon during the initial walk through the arid landscape, “We are here. The time is now.” As if this is supposed to snap him out of the disorientation of landing on a distant planet. After being captured, he’s humble a bit as he struggles to explain who he is; however, once he’s back in a position of power–he reverts back to his ego driven self. It isn’t until the end when he realizes just how insignificant he is and what happened.
The dialogue is rich with quotables, some of which I’ve already mentioned; however, there are many moments of the topsy-turvy world which mirror the hierarchy of society regardless of who’s in charge and the reasons for doing things. The apes holding onto sacred text as the end all, be all while disregarding the truth standing before them out of fear. During the trial as Cornelius speaks, the three elders hold their hands in the “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”. This little tidbit was ad-libbed by the actors and the team liked it so much, they left it in. I love it.
The arid landscape of the Forbidden Zone is gorgeous and the lush ape village beautifully smooth and primitive. It was interesting as the juxtaposition of the apes being advanced with language and knowledge, yet they had no technology or knew anything about flying.
The score was powerful with the wind gushing sound during the re-entry, to the sounds of the ram horn, to the end when all that’s left against the credits is the sound of the waves crashing on the shore leaving you to let the image of the statue head sink in…
The relationships, power struggles, the lack of wanting to see the truth out of preservation of the now, the mistreatment, and the ways of keeping people quiet are all mirrors of society at the time the film was made and still relevant within the time we live in now.
What I Wished Was Better
I get the reason for the arid landscape; however, geographically speaking, that type of landscape occurs in the Southwest nowhere near New York City. Am I to accept the reason for this is due to humans destruction, causing North America to shift that much where the Southwest has now been crunched to a 3 day walk to New York? I know this is Sci-fi and there are production costs involved…so, I’ll let it go 🙂
While Planet of the Apes is considered Sci-fi Adventure (fantasy), it holds deep roots in mirroring society as it was and still is making it more relevant than ever to watch and learn from. It’s through the ape lens, we see how ignorance, justice, and knowledge can be warped, misused, and interpreted in a way to justify actions against one another. A cautionary tale if you ask me…Available on multiple streaming platforms for rent. ( I own the collection. ) Watch the trailer below:
Fun facts: Charleton Heston had the flu for most of the shoot. The actors had to drink their food as it took too long to apply the ape make-up. The Arizona heat was so strong during filming some cast and crew members fainted. The film was shot over the summer months of May through August, prompting sequels to be done over the winter due to the extreme temperatures from the first film. There were 80 make-up artists on set and John Chambers, head of make-up effects, was given an honorary Oscar for his work as the category didn’t exist until 1981.